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Child Poverty: Not Just Being Poor

Child poverty in Britain is at its highest level since 2010 (Guardian 16 March). Around 100,000 children fell into relative poverty in 2015–6, and four million children, around thirty percent, are classed as poor. The head of Oxfam’s UK programme was quoted as saying, ‘There are now more people in poverty in the UK than there have been for almost 20 years and a million more than at the beginning of the decade.’ Nearly half of children growing up in single-parent households are poor, while two-thirds of children in poverty are in households with at least one parent who is in work.

Poverty for children does not just mean going without possessions, living in sub-standard housing, not having a proper holiday. Mere survival is an issue too: in So You Think You Know about Britain?, Danny Dorling observes that infant mortality in London can depend on whether a child is born in a wealthier or poorer area. He also notes that one cemetery in Bradford has eight times as many recent graves of infants and children as the equivalent cemetery near Hampstead in London. There are many factors involved in deaths at a very young age, including pre-term births, weight at birth and mother’s age and health, but poverty is clearly involved as well (and may be connected to some of these other causes).

Fatal injuries of various kinds are also correlated with poverty: ‘a child from the lowest social class in the United Kingdom is 16 times more likely to die in a house fire than one from a wealthy family’ (World Health Organisation report, Injuries and Violence, 2014).

In 2010 a government review of health inequalities in England, Fair Society, Healthy Lives, presented as its main recommendation ‘Give every child the best start in life’. They noted that children with low ‘cognitive scores’ at 22 months but who come from better-off families increase their scores by the age of ten. But children with high cognitive scores at 22 months who come from badly-off families have lower scores by age ten. There may well be reservations about just what is being measured here, but the existence of some relation between economic status and educational achievement seems highly likely. This will then feed in to the qualifications gained, the jobs followed and so to health and life expectancy.

There is in fact other fairly strong evidence for the effect of poverty on educational attainment. For instance, as a proportion just over half as many children in receipt of free school meals gain top grades in GCSE as children in the whole population. It is often claimed that poorer parents have lower aspirations for their children, but this seems in fact not to be the case, with the same (and very high) proportion of parents of seven-year-olds wanting their children to attend university, irrespective of their own status as poor or non-poor. Parents’ own education is a better predictor than income of how well their children will do at school, but this does not mean that income plays no role.

In February the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health produced a comprehensive report State of Child Health, which, among other topics, examined the links between health and poverty among children. Infant mortality, as we have seen, was correlated with living in a low-income household, as also were the risk of tooth decay or dying in an accident or developing a chronic condition such as asthma. The report also noted that many effects of childhood ill-health can continue into adulthood:

'the risk of death in adulthood increases for many conditions including coronary heart disease, respiratory disease, injuries, and cancer. In addition, mental health conditions in childhood are more likely to persist into adulthood.'

Giving every child the best start in life is a fine principle, but one hard to put into practice in a society riven with inequality and privilege. 

PB